James G. Longstaffe, Ph.D.
James Longstaffe is an Associate Professor in the School of Environmental Science at the University of Guelph and his research focuses on the behavior of chemical contaminants in the environment. Contamination of the environment with anthropogenic chemicals is recognized as one of the leading factors contributing to global environmental change. The complex relationships between the chemical, physical, and biological processes that occur in the heterogeneous mixture of air, water, soil, and biology in the near-surface environment all play an important role in governing the behavior of contamination in the global environment, including their persistence, degradation, transport, and ecotoxicity. A key part of his research involves developing and applying novel analytical methods to provide new insight into the natural processes that remove or reduce the impact of contamination in the environment. Dr. Longstaffe completed his B.Sc. at the University of Western Ontario in Chemistry, his M.Sc. in Materials Chemistry at Dalhousie and his Ph.D. at the University of Toronto in Environmental Chemistry. Prior to joining the faculty at the University of Guelph, he worked as a Research Associate for Geosyntec Consultants in Guelph.
What are your primary areas of interest in environmental research?
J.L. My primary area of interest are the occurrence, fate, and behavior of chemical contaminants in the environment, most commonly in soils and sediments.
What is it that attracted you to complex environmental research problems?
J.L. I find two seemingly different areas of environmental science of particular interest: the first being how individual molecules physically interact with their local, molecular-scale environments, and the second being how these small-scale interactions have implications – both beneficial and harmful – on the larger environment. As the environment encompasses all physical domains – water, air, solids, organisms –exploring these interactions can be very challenging from an analytical standpoint. Overcoming these analytical challenges by developing new ways to study environmental systems is what attracted me to environmental research.
Do you have a favorite analytical method or technique? If so, what is it about it that technique that interests you the most?
J.L. Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectroscopy. This technique provides the most powerful analysis of molecular structure. Not only does it not rely on optical or destructive methods, it is often able to explore molecular structure and behavior in environmental systems that are otherwise very difficult to study.
Is there a particular discovery or research project that you are most proud of?
J.L. I am probably most proud of early work I did developing methods to actually observe the binding of contaminants in soils to specific soil structures. This allowed us to probe many theories related to how organic contaminants interact with soil and sediment organic matter. I am also proud of recent work we have done developing methods to study complex contaminant mixtures using simplified benchtop -scale NMR instrumentation – this new methodology has promise to open up the application of NMR for environmental analysis to a wider user-base.
What are the major challenges you face in detecting and understanding contaminant interactions with the natural environment?
J.L. Compared to other methods for environmental analysis, our methods suffer from a lack of sensitivity. Nevertheless, our methods are unique in being able to not only probe samples in as close to their natural state as is possible, but are also able to provide key information related to how strongly bound compounds may be to their environmental matrices – information that is often lost when analysis requires extractions.
Analytical methods are continuing to evolve and advance, what major breakthrough would be most advantageous to your research?
J.L. Much of my work relies on the use of strong magnetic fields. Room-temperature superconducting magnets would greatly improve the practicality of what we do.
Do you ever see technology getting to the point where there is a “silver bullet” technique in environmental research or will a combination of techniques always be required?
J.L. Good environmental research has always relied upon the use of orthogonal methods to provide complimentary information from which to base decisions. Even if one single method could seemingly tell you everything, it would still be prudent to have data acquired by a different method, with different biases and limitations for comparison.
When you are not doing your research, what do you enjoy doing?
J.L. I enjoy music – I play the piano and am learning violin, as well as painting. When the weather is nice, or even just not terrible, I can often be found out working in my garden.